(Nov. 17, 2003) — There are no U.S. mandates calling for plastics recycling. Landfills are cheap — a fraction of the cost in Europe or Japan. The Green Party is little more than a joke in national politics.
But that does not mean the plastics industry can or should ignore the environmental initiatives taking place elsewhere.
“If you neglect these issues and say that they'll take care of themselves, well, they probably will, but you probably won't like the results,” said James J. Kolb, vice president-automotive for the American Plastics Council.
APC, through its Troy, Mich.-based Automotive Learning Center, is teaming with the auto industry's Vehicle Recycling Partnership and the U.S. government-backed Argonne National Laboratories to research the use of plastics recovered from scrapped cars.
European Union initiatives requiring carmakers to take responsibility for recycling more cars has prompted research on both sides of the Atlantic into alternative materials. For the most part, though, there has been little direct connection between the operating rules in Europe and those in North America.
“In Europe, there has been more of a mandate-driven philosophy toward waste management,” said Allen Blakey, public affairs director for the Vinyl Institute in Arlington, Va. “Here, it has been a more market-driven philosophy.”
There are individual companies that have done well recycling, and VI maintains a database of PVC recyclers so companies can find local firms interested in scrap. But the market simply has not supported wide-ranging recycling programs, according to Mike Montpetit, chairman for the Society of Plastics Engineers Environmental Division. “There's been no real economic incentive for it to take place here,” he said.
And there is more at work than recycling issues. PVC continues to take hits because of concerns about chlorine and dioxins. “Green building” initiatives in Europe and the United States aim to tie government contracts to buying policies that inhibit the use of vinyl. Activists who once climbed smoke stacks are taking their battles into boardrooms, warn officials with the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers, and North Americans need to be prepared.
“There are some big organizations that are well-organized and influential,” said ECVM's Arjen Sevenster. “They're ... becoming much more professional.”
Efforts like the one in Boston last month, when activists pressured the city to halt purchases of construction products and office supplies containing PVC, are not rare any more in North America. The industry won a partial victory, with language approved that recommends against products containing chlorine, rather than specifying PVC, but those attacks will continue.
The reduced economic and legislative pressures in North America are an opportunity to create a unified response to environmental concerns without operating under the pressures encountered in Europe — not an excuse to avoid them.
Rhoda Miel is Plastics News' Detroit-based staff reporter.